Peter Sagan (Cannondale) continued his spring reckoning on Wednesday, topping world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) in De Brabantse Pijl. Sagan edged the Belgian in a two-up sprint in Overijse, Belgium, after they attacked from a late breakaway on the final climb of the precursor to the Ardennes classics.
Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) was third.
“After [the Tour of] Flanders I stopped racing and I was here to try the race and understand how I feel, and I felt very good today and I’m very happy for this victory,” said Sagan. “Now I hope I’m ready for [Amstel Gold Race on] Sunday.”
With 18 kilometers to go in the 200km affair, Greg Van Avermaet lit the fuse for BMC Racing on the climb of the Hertstraat. Only two men followed: Avermaet’s world champion teammate Gilbert and Ghent-Wevelgem winner Sagan. The trio pushed over the top of the ramp, Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) leading Simon Geschke (Argos) in pursuit. A kilometer later, it was Van Avermaet, Gilbert, Sagan, Chavanel, and Geschke together, a handful of seconds behind the remnants of the day’s long breakaway.
David Malacarne (Europcar), Stijn Devolder (RadioShack-Leopard), and Leukemans continued to press the breakaway up front, the chase group of heavyweights bearing down on them. It was no use. With 12km to go, the rainbow jersey of the world champion and the Slovak flag jersey of the oppressive Sagan rolled through the breakaway and immediately went to the front.
Behind the leaders, Simon Spilak (Katusha) and Nicki Sørensen (Saxo-Tinkoff) were among the animators driving a chase group at just 15 seconds. The breakaway riders rotated, looking over their shoulders all the time.
Sørensen struck out alone from the chase. Defending champion Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) followed suit, jumping clear with four riders, including Spilak, with 10km remaining. The chasers quickly made contact with Sørensen and the group was six. Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil) made them seven moments later.
The chase lost ground, however, as the leaders organized up ahead. With Sagan, Chavanel, Van Avermaet, and the others pulling through, the breakaway pushed out to 23 seconds with 8km to go. The chasers, meanwhile, dropped back to what was left of the peloton, with perhaps 40 riders remaining.
Van Avermaet led onto the penultimate climb, the Ijskelderlaan, and the group rode over the top together, 33 seconds ahead of the peloton.
Behind them, Kevin De Weert smothered a number of accelerations for Omega Pharma. With 4km to go, the gap was 35 seconds. At the front of the breakaway, Sagan tightened his shoes on a brief descent, Gilbert in his wheel.
Chavanel was the first to jump, stringing the group out on the descent to the final climb, but Sagan hunted him down. Nikolas Maes (Omega Pharma) countered, followed by Van Avermaet. Sagan looked over his shoulder, refusing to shoulder the chase, and the duo pushed away. Gilbert sat in Sagan’s wheel, unwilling to chase his teammate. Chavanel would not chase either. After his tear through the cobbled classics, Sagan could find no help in the chase as the leaders approached the final climb, the Schavei.
Van Avermaet attacked Maes, who had been in the breakaway for much of the race, partway up the climb, leaving him pushing squares. Sagan stepped into the chase and drew the Belgian back. The Slovak countered and only Gilbert could follow. Leukemans chased at four seconds and gradually drew them in around the left-hand bend onto the finish straight.
“I was confident for the sprint because I was already on [Sagan’s] wheel the last five kilometers and I was very focused,” Gilbert said.
The world champion jumped immediately, again distancing Leukemans, but Sagan edged around his left at the line, taking his second victory of the classics season.
“Today it was a strange race, there was a break, always attacks,” said Sagan. “On the last lap, we joined the break, with Gilbert, Chavanel. Philippe had an advantage because he had a teammate, and there were two [Omega] riders. I was alone. I came here today to try my legs, to understand how I feel. I felt very good. I’m happy for this win.”
Despite continuing his winless streak in the rainbow jersey, Gilbert said he was satisfied with the day and would carry confidence into the Ardennes classics, starting Sunday with the Amstel Gold Race in the Limburg region of the Netherlands.
“It is always better to win, but we did a great race and we played our cards in the final,” said Gilbert. “It also gives a lot of confidence to the team and to myself as well. But it’s always better to win, for sure.”